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Hannah Arendt’s (1906-1975) post-World War Two publications attempt to understand the political following the crises of 20th-century totalitarianism.[1] Yet, Arendt’s notions remain contemporary and crucial, serving as reminders of human individuality located in a communal world and the importance of democratic ideals. At the basis of her paradigm-shifting book, The Human Condition (1958), is an avowal of a political condition – as opposed to one rooted in nature or essence – that is based on natality and plurality.[2] While natality refers to new beginnings and the individuality of each person, plurality refers to the potential of human togetherness and ‘the many’.[3]

These are the basic conditions that give rise to a public sphere of appearance – a polis– where action and speech can take place: common aptitudes for the spontaneous and new that can have transformative outcomes. In light of this, the above themes can be applied to the Concrete Assembly collective and Hush Hush: Conversations with Myself. In cultivating the conditions that give rise to united action, the collective themselves, the artists, and those more widely involved with the exhibition have made a cohesive demand for grassroots artistic and cultural initiatives on the basis of their intrinsic value. Thus they have reacted against a context of increased pursuit of economic interests in the art world.

Hush Hush Saturday 18th Cosima Cobley Carr Performing

Photo: courtesy Brandon Davies


In The Human Condition, Arendt uses a phenomenological philosophical method to examine how human existence, activities and the spaces in which they take place have been understood throughout Western history, as a means of understanding their past, present and future significance and their role in the catastrophes of her era. She introduces a framework: ‘triptychs of labor, work and action; the private, the social, and the political; judging, willing, and thinking’.[4] To Arendt, the communal world is one that is produced through human activity – what she terms vita activa –  labour, work, and action.

Labour and work are tied to necessity and the private realm of oikos, the household sphere of biological needs; labour relates to the ‘biological process of human body’, while work builds a world through the creation of objects.[5] Through distinctions between labour/work and private/public, Arendt introduced the human capacity for action. Action is not forced by necessities of biological life like labour or prompted by utility like work. It relates to the Greek notions of praxis (activity, practice) and lexis (speech): ‘venturing forth in speech and deed in the company of peers’.[6] As plurality and natality are the two central features of action, consequently it is a collective force that produces meaning in performance.

Arendt identifies confusion conceptually and linguistically caused modern reversals of the activities corresponding to the private/public, critiquing the promotion of labor/work to political and philosophical significance at the expense of action. Consequently, the authentically political was suppressed: it became a function of means-to-ends, resulting in the 20th century’s ‘loss of the world’.[7] This aids Arendt’s affirmation of a situation returning politics to Ancient Greek notions of self-government, direct democracy and political liberty.[8]

Similar to the loss of authentic political meaning Arendt identifies, communal artistic structures and activity in the United Kingdom are currently threatened by a context of financialisation. Contemporary neoliberal economic policies focus on the commercialisation and profitability of the arts, deterring from the authentically human capacities for action and speech that artistic activity is linked to. Instead, artistic practice is appropriated and instrumentalised: made a policy object only when there is faith that it will maximise revenue. Consequently, those without the means of profit are excluded and therefore the situation remains unchanged.

In this way, Concrete Assembly and those partaking within Hush Hush signify how conditions promoting natality and plurality can instigate the potential of collective action and speech to react against this context. The ‘irreducible singularity’ of each involved brings something unique, while through acting and speaking in a public activity of togetherness, power is actualised.[9] Contrasting with the imperatives of violence and domination, this form of power is non-hierarchal and non-instrumental. It is an extension of action that creates connections; ensuing a chain of events and relations between others, deriving legitimacy from the initial bringing together – not the actions following.

As action requires public space to distinguish it from the private realm of oikos, it provides an incentive for gathering within the public space of the polis. The polis is not the Ancient Greek city-state’s physical location as such, or an institution, rather it is a public space of appearance ‘in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me’.[10] Such an idea is hopeful; a new polis may emerge ‘wherever people gather together’.[11] Thus the polis can be understood as an event, and in forming a concrete, autonomous zone of artistic freedom that favours the individual’s capacity for action and speech, Concrete Assembly’s own event has created a temporary egalitarian public space of appearance, a polis in action, complying with Arendt’s avocation of Ancient Greek democracy.

Hush Hush Friday 17th Pet Groteque soundchecking

Photo: courtesy Brandon Davies

Adhering to Arendt’s views on natality reminds us that these spaces of appearance are invaluable as the spaces we become people. Arendt focuses on the ‘miraculous birth of each person’.[12] As their words and deeds insert themselves ‘into the human world’, so begins a ‘second birth’ of the abstract human in to the polis.[13] This is akin to Aristotle’s bios politikos whereby the city state provides man with a second life; Arendt’s second birth, however, focuses upon the actualisation of the human being’s individuality as a ‘who’, ceasing to be a ‘what’.[14]

Meanwhile, the collective’s identification with the spirit of Arendtian action, a public form of engagement and discussion, allows for cacophonous conversations and exploration of views. Plurality has the twofold character of equality and distinction, relating to the theme of ‘dialogical self’ underlying the artistic content of Hush Hush:

If men were not equal, they could neither understand each other and those who came before them nor plan for the future and foresee the needs of those who will come after them. If men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.[15]

This suggests how we can understand ourselves as situated within a common yet changing world that always has the potential for the unexpected. Adhering to such a notion is Hush Hush’s consideration of diverse opinion, combined with a dedication to egalitarianism and participation. This links with ‘enlarged mentality’, a Kantian notion that protects varied perspectives of the world, which Arendt looked to in her later theorizations of judgment.[16] This interpretation of judgment highlights its ability to construct relations and community, and create spaces for human action to appear and alter the common world. Through contributing to a public and disclosing oneself as a judging person, one discovers the plurality of ways the world may be understood. In this way, political judgment moves from epistemology to politics, concerning opinion exchange, the Greek notion of doxa.[17] This signifies how freedom can be confirmed as a reality in a world.

Hush Hush Friday 17th - on screen Melanie Eckersley The state of Grace

Photo: courtesy Brandon Davies

Hush Hush Friday 17th - Audience

Photo: courtesy Brandon Davies


Alongside attempts made to commodify art practice, the determined strategies of artists and curators are revealed. With this in mind, Concrete Assembly and this exhibition can be seen as an evolving movement reacting to the ever-increasing financialisation of the art world, inspiring others to take action and counter the instrumentalised, economic arguments thatthose currently reaping its benefits remain convinced by. Accordingly, initiative must be taken to continue these – and Arendt’s – conversations. Through the worldly conditions of natality and plurality, our shared capabilities for action and speech can be fostered, thereby encouraging further grassroots artistic collectivism when established institutions and governments will not.

Bethany Holmes


Bethany Holmes is a writer, editor and researcher from Merseyside, now based in London. Bethany has a Masters in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths, University of London; her dissertation focused on biopolitics and spatial governance in globalised, neoliberal cities. She has been published in the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine – where she has worked as an Editorial Assistant – and has also worked at Yale University Press on their Art and Architecture list.

https://cargocollective.com/bethanyholmes


Notes

[1]Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), 52

[2]Griselda Pollock ‘Action, Activism, and Art and/as Thought: A Dialogue with the Artworking of Sonia Khurana and Sutapa Biswas and the Political Theory of Hannah Arendt’, e-flux, no. 92

[3]Ibid.

[4]Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 194

[5]Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 7

[6]Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics (New York, Schocken Books, 2007), viii

[7]Maurizio Passerin, ‘Hannah Arendt’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

[8]Ivan Zoltan Denes, ‘Personal Liberty and Political Freedom: Four Interpretations’, European Journal of Political Theory, Vol. 7, No. 81 (2008), 84

[9]Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), xvii

[10]Arendt, The Human Condition, 198-99

[11]Ibid.

[12]Kristeva, xvii

[13]Arendt, The Human Condition, 176

[14]Ibid., 179

[15]Arendt,The Human Condition, 175

[16]Nikolas Kompridis (ed.), The Aesthetic Turn in Political Thought(New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), 50

[17]Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 15


Feature image courtesy of Brandon Davies

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